Endless Summer in the National Parks: Backpack the Desert

Manning Camp Loop, Saguaro NP, AZ
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Manning Camp Loop, Saguaro NP, AZ
Saguaro

Saguaros line the Douglas Spring Trail. The park’s namesake cactus can weigh 6 tons and reach a height of 50 feet. Photo by: Greg McCown

The iconic, arms-aloft silhouette of the saguaro cactus conjures up the desert Southwest like few other images can. It also provides precisely zero shade, a matter of no small importance from spring into fall, when temperatures crank to broiling. In winter, though? The Saguaro Wilderness in the Rincon Mountain District offers pleasant weather in lower elevations and refreshing temps up top. Start an 11.8-mile overnight on the Douglas Spring Trail, hiking through a garden of saguaros, barrel cacti, and prickly pear that gives way to creosote and manzanita as you gain about 2,000 feet en route to the Douglas Spring campsites at mile 5.9. Descend a steep 3.5 miles to Grass Shack Camp, then head north to close the loop. (For a longer, if chillier, trip, head east into the high country from Douglas Spring via the Cow Head Saddle Trail to Manning Camp at 8,000 feet, a ponderosa pine- and juniper-covered oasis with year-round water and easy access to extensive views over Heartbreak Ridge, the Rincon Valley, and Tucson.) Average January high/low 60°F/35°F (Douglas Spring) Season February and March for warmer high-elevation weather Permit $8/night.